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Published: Monday, 2/2/2004

TPS board abstentions complicate some votes

BY SANDRA SVOBODA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With two bankers and two city employees on the Toledo Board of Education who can have conflicts of interest with agenda items, attendance at meetings can be crucial for some issues.

Board vice president Larry Sykes is vice president for community affairs for Fifth Third Bank, and new member Deborah Barnett is vice president of community relations at Huntington Bank.

They abstained from last week's vote to approve the district's investment activity, as Mr. Sykes has done since he's been on the board. It was Mrs. Barnett's first meeting.

Board president David Welch and member Anita Lopez work for the city. Mr. Welch is the commissioner of solid waste and Mrs. Lopez is an attorney in the division of taxation.

Both abstained in August when the district and the city did a “land swap” for the new Robinson Junior High School. With the district and the city discussing such deals and purchases related to the $821 million school construction project, they may need to abstain from more votes.

“I think it's been beneficial to be a part of the city organizations and the school board,” Mr. Welch said. “You hear things from work, and you also hear things from the school side. You get a different perspective.”

For most resolutions to officially pass or fail, three of the five members would need to cast votes, said Rick Dickinson, general counsel for the Ohio School Boards Association.

“As far as the situation where two board members are abstaining because they have a conflict of interest, the other three board members just have to be there. Normally a 2-1 vote will pass a measure,” Mr. Dickinson said.

But for some issues - those involving hiring or buying property - the resolution needs to pass with a majority of the full board, he said. That would mean the three members voting would all need to vote in favor of the measure for it to pass, Mr. Dickinson said.

Board member Peter Silverman's attendance becomes crucial for issues where two members are abstaining. If he or the other two members not abstaining are absent, the vote can't be counted.

“It's an interesting dynamic,” Mr. Silverman said. “It hasn't been a problem to date and I assume we'll be able to figure out a practical way to work through it.”

He suggested the board could hold a special meeting to vote on an issue if two members abstained and the other three weren't all present.

Treasurer Jim Fortlage said district officials discussed the possibility of having board members vote by telephone and videoconferencing, but neither are legal methods of voting in Ohio.

“You must be there to vote,” he said.

Mr. Dickinson said the school board association discusses the issue of board members' potential conflicts of interest and the appropriate times to abstain with boards throughout Ohio.

“It comes up. We don't hear a lot of problems about it. We do counsel people that their job is to be a board member and vote when they can, but if they have conflicts that might legally require them to abstain or if they feel that even if they're not legally required to do that, they should out of the sense of ethics, that's what they ought to do,” he said.



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